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ADA News Convention Daily

ADA to feature Humanitarian honoree at Opening General Session

'Being altruistic is in my blood. It is my makeup and no matter how selfish I want to become, I can't shake it.'

October 18, 2017

By David Burger


Humanitarian: Dr. Usa Bunnag is the founder and president of Smiles on Wings, a charitable organization that has provided dental care, scholarships and mentoring in Thailand since 2003.
Dr. Usa Bunnag first visited the Maesariang district of Thailand because of a song.

"As a student growing up in Thailand, we grew up singing a song about Maesariang," said the Maryland dentist. "So it was a call from a song in my childhood that landed me there. I went there in 2003 and fell in love with the people and the land."

Dr. Bunnag loved the people and the land so much that she decided she wanted to make a difference.

She is the president and founder of Smiles on Wings, a charitable organization that has provided dental care, scholarships and mentoring in Thailand since 2003. Maesariang has served as the Thailand home base for Smiles on Wings since the organization's founding.  

In recognition of her years of service, which includes her continuing commitment to Thailand and her community in Maryland, Dr. Bunnag has been named the 2017 ADA Humanitarian Award recipient. She will be honored at the Opening General Session Thursday morning, presented by ACT Oral Care.

"Serving the underserved in Thailand and here at home, Dr. Bunnag inspires all of us to be humanitarians in our own unique ways as dentists," said ADA President Gary L. Roberts. "Her Smiles on Wings programs have transformed the lives of thousands upon thousands of people all around the globe, and it is the Board's honor to bestow the 2017 ADA Humanitarian Award to her for her devotion and dedication. I was honored to call her with the news of this award."

The ADA Humanitarian Award recognizes dentist members who have distinguished themselves by giving at least 10 years to improving the oral health of underserved populations in the United States and abroad. The award includes $10,000 given to the dental charity/project of the recipient's choice.

The donation will be the seed money to build a permanent dental clinic in Maesariang, as well as provide the ability to send a young woman or two to college to become dental nurses, Dr. Bunnag said.

Dr. Bunnag moved to the United States when she was 14. After graduating from Montgomery College, just outside of Washington, D.C., she earned her dental degree from the Howard University College of Dentistry in 1994. She has been providing dental care at her private practice since then and has expanded her practice to include two offices.

Dr. Bunnag's dedication to aiding the underserved is not limited to humanitarian trips abroad. In 2001, she became the first dentist in her county to provide dental care to children under the Maryland Medicaid program, serving over 1,000 children to date. She is also a designated dentist for the Montgomery County Child Welfare department and has served as designated dentist for the International Rescue Committee Suburban Washington Resettlement Center, which aids refugee families. Since 1996, Dr. Bunnag has also provided free dental care to Buddhist monks in the Washington, D.C.

But it is perhaps her service in Thailand that is closest to her heart.

"My mother had always taught me to be kind to others," Dr. Bunnag said.

"Being altruistic is in my blood. It is my makeup and no matter how selfish I want to become, I can't shake it. It is who I am."

She continued: "I grew up poor and did not have much growing up in Thailand during the Vietnam War era. There were times that I did not even have books to study and had to borrow books from my friends to study. I hardly ever had clean uniforms to wear to school. I was always envious of my friends who had clean socks and shiny shoes and beautiful pleated skirts and crisp white blouses. I didn't have a lot and lived through some difficult times. I left Thailand at the age of 14 and left my mother to come to live with my father. It was the last time I saw her. When she passed away years later, I was in dental school and couldn't afford to go back to see her to say goodbye. This act of giving back is my tribute to her. The more I do it, the more passionate I am. I cannot see myself doing something else. I know she would have wanted me to do it."

Since 2003, Dr. Bunnag has made biannual trips to Thailand with volunteers to improve the health and well-being of underserved Thai communities by delivering dental care and humanitarian aid and providing education and training.

Through Smiles on Wings, Dr. Bunnag has created three scholarship programs for young women in Thailand:

  • The Dream Scholarship Program, founded in 2008, provides scholarships and mentoring to young women attending college. There are seven Dream Scholars in college in addition to four successful graduates.
  • The Helping Hands Scholarships, founded in 2012, provide full scholarships to four orphans in Maesariang from elementary to high school.
  • The New Beginnings Scholarships, founded in 2014, provide scholarships and leadership training for five Karen tribal young women from Maesariang to attend college. There are five women enrolled.

The scholarship programs help women who are often vulnerable targets for the sex trade industry, Dr. Bunnag said.

Besides running scholarship and mentoring programs, Dr. Bunnag has led Smiles on Wings to establish a fully functional mobile dental clinic in Maesariang. And in 2014, with the help of a grant from the ADA Foundation and other donors, Smiles on Wings built a permanent dental clinic in Takua Pa district, Phang Nga province, in southern Thailand. The permanent clinic was created to serve the needs of the local community, which had been devastated by a 2004 tsunami. During Smiles on Wings' January 2016 mission, Dr. Bunnag and volunteers finished fully furnishing the clinic and treated 565 patients.

These clinics, twice a year, are used to treat hundreds of impoverished children and adults who have never before received dental treatment. In between trips by Dr. Bunnag and her team of volunteers, sustainable dental care is provided under the supervision of Dr. Bunnag.

Colleagues of Dr. Bunnag testified to her being worthy of being honored.

"I joined her as an international volunteer in 2014, 2015 and 2016," said Dr. Tom T.P. Chen, adjunct assistant professor at Loma Linda University. "The mission contributed significantly to the oral health and quality of life of those we served. Personally, I have led as well as participated in numerous dental missions for the last 20 years and can testify to the amount of good Dr. Bunnag has given. Dr. Bunnag not only provided leadership to both the international volunteers and the local Thai staff but served as an international inspiration to all. She is committed to further her profession by setting an example for others."

Frank McLaughlin, executive director of the Maryland State Dental Association, echoed Dr. Chen's comments about Dr. Bunnag. "I have known Dr. Bunnag for 10 years, and in that time I have seen her unwavering commitment to service both nationally and abroad," Mr. McLaughlin said. "In addition to her successful family practice, Dr. Bunnag is always willing to do more to give back to her community and the dental profession. Dr. Bunnag's selfless character, vision and commitment to her profession make her an excellent candidate for the ADA Humanitarian Award."

Dr. John Savukinas, a Maryland dentist, has accompanied Dr. Bunnag on half a dozen trips to Thailand. "Dr. Bunnag led the missions so that they ran smoothly and productively," he said. "Dr. Bunnag was truly inspiring not only to the patients but also to the volunteer dental team. I enjoyed my experience so much that I have referred my colleagues to participate in Smiles on Wings missions. I always feel that I should be thanking Dr. Bunnag for such a wonderful experience, but she is the one who thanks the volunteers first."

Personal tragedy has not diminished Dr. Bunnag's dedication to service. Dr. Nancy Tilkin, secretary of the executive board of Smiles On Wings, said Dr. Bunnag's husband, Aurachun Bunnag, suffered a debilitating stroke upon returning from one of her missions. "This would have been enough to end volunteer work for most but did not deter Dr. Bunnag from her endeavors," Dr. Tilkin said. "She has been providing and taking care of her husband with his handicap and continues with her mission to serve those in Thailand."

"Before his stroke, he was an important part of Smiles on Wings and of my success," Dr. Bunnag said. "Without him, I would not have been able to make Smiles on Wings a success. He carried out many projects for us in the past. He supported me through school and took care of our children while I was in school and started my practice. He even worked with me as my front desk person when I just opened my practice. Despite his stroke, my husband has traveled to Thailand more than 10 times on the missions."

Renu Srisawaidaorunag is a health officer in the village of Sobmuay, on the border of Thailand and Myanmar. She graduated from college with the help of a Smiles on Wings scholarship.

"I am the first person from Sobmuay, male or female, to graduate from college with a graduate degree," she wrote in a letter about the Smiles on Wings scholarship program. "It is my proudest moment as a Karen tribal girl from a very poor upbringing. With Dr. Usa Bunnag's nurturing through the years, I am ready to improve the health and well-being of our village. Also, we strive to do our best and be role models for the next generation for many years to come. I owe my deepest gratitude to Dr. Bunnag and Smiles on Wings."

For more information on how to donate or volunteer for a Smiles on Wings trip, visit smilesonwings.org.

To learn more about the ADA Humanitarian Award, visit ADA.org and search for Humanitarian Award.

To explore international oral health volunteer opportunities, go to the ADA Foundation's International Dental Volunteer Organizations website: internationalvolunteer.ADA.org.